The Early Church on Love and Nonviolence

by Rev. Kevin Daugherty

The Deserter (1916) by Boardman Robinson.

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, don’t resist him who is evil; but whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also. If anyone sues you to take away your coat, let him have your cloak also. Whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. (Matthew 5:38-41)

Therefore whatever you desire for men to do to you, you shall also do to them; for this is the law and the prophets. (Matthew 7:12)

Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place, for all those who take the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)

One of the scribes came, and heard them questioning together. Knowing that he had answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the greatest of all?” Jesus answered, “The greatest is, ‘Hear, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength’ (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). This is the first commandment. The second is like this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18). There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31, cf. Matthew 22:34-40, Luke 10:25-28)

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

This is my commandment, that you love one another, even as I have loved you. (John 15:12)

Jesus answered, “My Kingdom is not of this world. If my Kingdom were of this world, then my servants would fight, that I wouldn’t be delivered to the Jews. But now my Kingdom is not from here.” (John 18:36)

Don’t seek revenge yourselves, beloved, but give place to God’s wrath. For it is written, “Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord.” Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing so, you will heap coals of fire on his head. Don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:19-21)

Love doesn’t harm a neighbor. Love therefore is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:10)

But now faith, hope, and love remain—these three. The greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)

For though we walk in the flesh, we don’t wage war according to the flesh; for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but mighty before God to the throwing down of strongholds. (2 Corinthians 10:3-4)

For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, in this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14)

However, if you fulfill the royal law, according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well. (James 2:8)

First, you shall love God who made you; second, love your neighbor as yourself, and do not do to another what you would not want done to you. And of these sayings the teaching is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you. For what reward is there for loving those who love you? Do not the Gentiles do the same? But love those who hate you, and you shall not have an enemy. (The Didache)

The Lord dwelleth in men that love peace; for to Him peace is dear; but from the contentious and them that are given up to wickedness He keepeth afar off. Restore therefore to Him your spirit whole as ye received it. (The Shepherd of Hermas)

What shall we do, then, brethren? Shall we become slothful in well-doing, and cease from the practice of love? God forbid that any such course should be followed by us! But rather let us hasten with all energy and readiness of mind to perform every good work. (1 Clement)

Let him who has love in Christ keep the commandments of Christ. Who can describe the [blessed] bond of the love of God? What man is able to tell the excellence of its beauty, as it ought to be told? The height to which love exalts is unspeakable. Love unites us to God. Love covers a multitude of sins. Love bears all things, is long-suffering in all things. There is nothing base, nothing arrogant in love. Love admits of no schisms: love gives rise to no seditions: love does all things in harmony. By love have all the elect of God been made perfect; without love nothing is well-pleasing to God. In love has the Lord taken us to Himself. On account of the Love he bore us, Jesus Christ our Lord gave His blood for us by the will of God; His flesh for our flesh, and His soul for our souls. (1 Clement)

[Christians] comfort their oppressors and make them their friends. They do good to their enemies. (Aristides)

We will not ask you to punish our accusers. Their present wickedness is sufficient punishment. (Justin Martyr)

We who formerly murdered one another now refrain from making war even upon our enemies. (Justin Martyr)

We [Gentiles] who used to hate and destroy one another, and would not live with men of a different tribe because of their different manners, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies. (Justin Martyr)

Jesus commanded us to love even our enemies, as was predicted by Isaiah in many passages. (Justin Martyr)

All of us pray for you, and for all men, as our Christ and Lord taught us to do. For He commanded us to pray even for our enemies, and to love those who hate us, and to bless those who curse us. (Justin Martyr)

We have learned not to return blow for blow, nor to go to law with those who plunder and rob us. Not only that, but to those who strike us on one side of the face, we have learned to offer the other side also. (Athenagoras)

What, then, are the teachings in which we Christians are brought up? “I say unto you, ‘Love your enemies; bless those who curse you. Pray for those who persecute you.'” (Athenagoras)

He commanded [His followers] . . . not only not to strike others, but even, when they themselves are struck, to present the other cheek. . . . [He commanded them] not only not to injure their neighbors, nor to do them any evil, but also, when they are dealt with wickedly, to be long-suffering. (Irenaeus)

Instead of the prohibition that says, “You shall not kill”, Jesus prohibits even anger. Instead of the law commanding the giving of tithes, He taught us to share all our possessions with the poor. He taught us to love not only our neighbors, but even our enemies. (Irenaeus)

The philosophers will then with propriety be taken up in a friendly exposure, . . . but not in the manner of avenging ourselves on our detractors. Rather, it will be for the purpose of their conversion. For vengeance is far from being the case with those persons who have learned to bless those who curse. (Clement of Alexandria)

The spiritual man never cherishes resentment or harbors a grudge against anyone–even though deserving of hatred for his conduct. (Clement of Alexandria)

Christians are not allowed to use violence to correct delinquencies of sins. (Clement of Alexandria)

It is not in war, but in peace, that we are trained. (Clement of Alexandria)

Our enemy must be aided, so that he may not continue as an enemy. For by help, good feeling is compacted and enmity dissolved. (Clement of Alexandria)

If dragged to trial, [a Christian] does not resist. (Tertullian)

The Christian does no harm even to his enemy. (Tertullian)

The practice of the old law was to avenge itself by the vengeance of the sword. It was to pluck out “eye for eye”, and to inflict retaliatory revenge for injury. However, the practice of the new law points to clemency. (Tertullian)

Our religion commands us to love even our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us. . . . For everyone loves those who love them. It is unique to Christians to love those who hate them. (Tertullian)

We revile no one, for we believe that “revilers will not inherit the kingdom of God”. And we read, “Bless them that curse you; bless, and do curse not”. Also, “Being reviled, we bless”. (Origen)

The existence of many kingdoms would have been a hindrance to the spread of the doctrine of Jesus throughout the entire world. . . . This was because of the need for men everywhere to engage in war and fight on behalf of their native country–which was the case before the times of Augustus. . . . How, then, was it possible for the Gospel doctrine of peace to prevail throughout the world? For it does not permit men to take vengeance even upon their enemies. It was only possible because, at the coming of Jesus, a milder spirit had been everywhere introduced into the conduct of things. (Origen)

When a Christian is arrested, he does not resist. Nor does he avenge himself against your unrighteous violence–even though our people are numerous and plentiful. (Cyprian)

We may not hate. And we please God more by rendering no return for wrong. . . . We repay kindness for your hatred. In return for the torments and penalties that are inflicted on us, we point out to you the ways of salvation. (Cyprian)

Even our enemies are to be loved. (Cyprian)

Wars are scattered all over the earth with the bloody horror of camps. The whole world is wet with mutual blood. And murder–which is admitted to be a crime in the case of an individual–is called a virtue when it is committed wholesale. Impunity is claimed for the wicked deeds, not because they are guiltless–but because the cruelty is perpetuated on a grand scale! (Cyprian)

Do no one injury at any time; provoke no one to anger. If an injury is done to you, look to Jesus Christ. And even as you desire Him to forgive your transgressions, also forgive others theirs. (Theonas of Alexandria)

When we suffer such ungodly things, we do not resist even in word. Rather, we leave vengeance to God. (Lactantius)

We do not resist those who injure us, for we must yield to them. (Lactantius)

When provoked by injury, if [a Christian] returns violence to his assailant, he is defeated. (Lactantius)

How can a man be just who hates, who despoils, who puts to death? Yet, those who strive to be serviceable to their country do all these things. . . . When they speak of the “duties” relating to warfare, their speech pertains neither to justice nor to true virtue. (Lactantius)

“An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” That is the expression of justice. However, [Jesus’] injunction that a man who is struck on the one cheek should offer the other also–that is the expression of goodness. Now, are justice and goodness opposed to each other? Far from it! Rather, there has only been advancement from simple justice to positive goodness. (Disputation of Achelaus and Manes)

I do not wish to be a king. I am not anxious to be rich. I decline military command. (Tatian)